[This Commentary originally appeared in the August 17, 1989 issue of The Mendon-Honeoye Falls-Lima Sentinel.]
Something happened to Doonesbury in the late 1970s and maybe the early 1980s. Maybe Mr. Trudeau just plain gave up. Unable, though he tried, to stem the ever growing swell of conservative ideology (particularly among the young), his creative passion dwindled to a fraction of its former self. Of course, he and his surviving brethren may have merely become disenchanted with the unfulfilled promise of their own generation.
Reagan had won big time and Carter, along with McGovern before him, had sealed the fate of the chaotic Democrats and the progressive tolerance that provided the foundation from which they had built victory at the close of the 1960s. Quite simply, Garry Trudeau, and his alter ego Doonesbury, had lost spiritual touch with the ever changing young. Only an eighteen month sabbatical could supply the necessary change which could catapult the comic strip from the anachronism it had become. Still, Doonesbury has mellowed. While it continues to merit inclusion on the editorial page rather than the comics page, the biting satire, once its standard trademark, has all but gone. It has become an animated version of thirtysomething.
Along the same time Doonesbury began decaying, a rogue from Texas reared his unkempt head at a second class newspaper in our nation’s capital. Completely irreverent and with no sacred cows (albeit there eventually appeared a sacred penguin), Bloom County caught the mindset of America. While it did make fun of the more conservative elements of our society, it also lambasted the liberals. Indeed, at one point it featured a traditional-looking American sportsman hunting the nearly extinct American liberal.
Supposedly, Berke Breathed found a job because of a competing newspaper’s desire to counter the opposition’s Doonesbury advantage. (Don’t forget, Doonesbury has always been popular among the politicos of Washington DC.) In fact, at its beginning, many critics claimed Bloom County blatantly copied Garry Trudeau’s style and offered no imaginative creativity.
Many critics were wrong. Bloom County’s popularity had nothing to do with what vehicle the author chose to drive; it had to do with where the author chose to drive that vehicle. And as far as creativity, we need only remember the comments Doonesbury suffered at its inception – namely, it merely reflected what transpired in real life and did not take advantage of the wild worlds possible only in comic strips (and especially comic books).
Bloom County, with its anxiety closets, talking animals and extra-terrestrial influences, certainly did not lack imagination. At every step of the way, its creator asked the reader to believe what the reader knew in his right mind could not be possible.
Still, Mr. Breathred successfully captured an element of America that had been missing for quite some time. Of course, that America had been down on itself for nearly a generation may have had something to do with it. You see, when you’re down, you’re not likely to laugh at yourself. It takes a great deal of confidence to stare at yourself in the mirror, reflect on some recent action of personal embarrassment, and say, with a comical smile, “Boy, that was really stupid!”
We’ve all read how Reagan brought to America a renewed confidence. Maybe he was just lucky. Maybe the economy would have gotten better even without Reaganomics. Maybe America’s position in the world would have naturally lifted itself from the doldrums of self-flagellation (Lord knows it couldn’t have got much lower). Maybe the strain of the old world hegemonic totalitarian ideology would have snapped anyway in the 1980s and the Soviet Union would still find itself on the road it’s on.
Maybe, but who knows. The point being, except for a spasm in the stock markets, America had every right to regain its lost confidence. Proud again, it could now look at its more extreme elements with the proper amount of humor. Yet the cynicism of our population had not left when the esteem came back. No, this was a more mature America. It knew no one extreme could be faulted for the failures in the 60s and 70s (nor, by the way, did it see everything from that era as a failure).
The byline for the eighties was “Be Cool.” Nobody’s perfect. Don’t pretend you’re perfect and don’t force anybody else to be perfect. Do your job. Do your job well. But every once in a while, sit back, relax and enjoy the show. Show pride in your achievements and laugh at your faults, for everybody’s got a little bit of each.
If we hark back to an earlier time or a different setting, I would use the phrase “stop and smell the roses.” But that’s a worn out cliché and not fully appropriate. “Stop and smell the roses… and your feet” reflects today’s sentiment more acutely.
Bloom County registered all of this with accuracy. One might say that, while Doonesbury’s crowning achievement allowed each of us to live the role of the play-by-play announcer, Bloom County permitted us the freedom to play the part of the color commentator.
Yes, Opus et al measured the pulse of our evolving country. The Bloom County Players gave me something to look forward to every night after a day in the real world. I could count on a surrealistic non sequitur to pop my mind into a setting more suitable for the tranquil evening. I relied on seeing one or the other of my human frailties unabashedly exposed. Above all, I knew I would smile.
And now,… it’s gone.
Last Week #21: Hooray for the Perseids! (originally published August 10, 1989)
Next Week #23: What If… (originally published August 24, 1989)
[What is this and why is here? See Interested in Discovering My Time Machine? for more details.]